This time last year I was watching the brilliant The Theory of Everything, the Stephen Hawking biopic with an Oscar winning performance by Eddie Redmayne. On new years day this year I watched The Danish Girl, another biopic with an equally standout performance from Redmayne, yet the film itself didn’t quite live up to the star’s brilliant performance.
The Danish Girl portrays the true story behind Einar Wegener’s transformation into Lili Elbe, a successful Danish artist who was one of the first individuals to undergo sex reassignment surgery and become a transgender woman. Set in 1920s Copenhagen, the film opens with Einar (Eddie Redmayne) blissfully married to wife Gerda (Alicia Vikander), both are artists, yet while Einar’s landscape paintings are regarded highly in the community, Gerda is trying to get her portraits noticed. At a meeting with a gallerist, Gerda is told she could be a great painter, if only she found the right subject matter and boy does she just…
When Gerda’s current life model Ulla (Amber Heard) fails to show, Einar steps in to pose for his wife, complete with stockings and pink slippers, so she could complete her portrait. This pivotal moment however sparks the start of Einar’s struggle with his gender; his gentle caress of the soft fabric and the way in which he smiles and relaxes when posing are self evident of his comfort with the femininity of the role he is playing. Initially Gerda finds it all very amusing and when Ulla finally arrives to the scene she too laughs and christens Einar’s alter ego “Lili”.
Einar’s agrees to attend a ball with Gerda dressed as Lili, his ginger-haired cousin from Vejle, as they both think it’ll be funny and Einar dislikes public gatherings. However Einar quickly disappears as Lili’s persona takes control and things get even more complicated when Henrik (Ben Whishaw) takes Lili to another room and kisses her just at the precise moment when Gerda comes to find her husband…
Eddie Redmayne is exquisite in his portrayal of the two personas struggling for control in The Danish Girl. Just as depicted in The Theory of Everything, Redmayne showcases his transformative powers in Einar’s physical and emotional journey to become Lili. The actor is at his best when quietly becoming Lili, he brings her alive with a small smile with downcast eyes, delicate hand movements framing his face and re-positioning his feet on the floor. It’s these small and subtle touches that ring truest in the film. The most powerful scenes for Redmayne are the ones where he is battling his inner turmoil; the daring scene in which he strips down in front of a mirror and tucks himself between his legs to become Lili is tender and moving as Redmayne brilliantly conveys Einar finally accepting his true gender. Also the scene in which Einar visits a peepshow in Paris, primarily to try and reignite his heterosexual feelings for women, turns into an emotional study of the sensual female body as Lili comes to front mimicking the prostitute’s seductive poses.
Alicia Vikander steals the show though as the feisty yet emotional Gerda. She has her own battle throughout the film with supporting her husband’s transition into Lili, yet yearning for Einar to come back to her. The scene in which she tries to reach out for her husband who she has lost to Lili, is truly heartbreaking, “I need to talk to my husband, and I need to hold my husband. Can you at least try?”. Gerda is superbly compassionate and accepting of her husband, she is there for him the whole entire time and truly tries to help him with his identity, even though she knows she will loose the man she loves. This, for me, is one of the main problems with the film, as Einar turns into Lili, the character becomes selfish, starts seeing Henrik behind Gerda’s back and distances herself from this wonderfully supportive woman who clearly needs the man she loves.
The film itself is beautiful with stunning shots of fish markets and multicoloured houses of the Nyhavn Quayside; for a film featuring artists I felt it was quite fitting that every frame could be a beautiful photo in its own right. The period costumes and settings were spot on too with a touching string score by Alexandre Desplat.
However much I visually enjoyed the film, I didn’t feel like there was enough depth and exploration of the topical and important subject matter. We get brief glimpses of how society at the time dealt with the topic; the shock treatment Einar undergoes by doctors to try and ‘treat’ his illness, the diagnosis of ‘schizophrenia’ by psychiatrists and the subsequent shot of guards with a straight jacket to try and lock Einar away. Considering this was one of the first groundbreaking cases of its time, all of the characters in the film very quickly accepted Lili, there was only one instance of discrimination. Also with a running time of two hours, the pacing was also rather slow and even though they traveled from Copenhagen to Paris and then to Dresden, I felt that not much actually happened.
The film’s subject matter is handled very delicately and is also very moving, but I feel that it is played almost too safe with only a couple of daring scenes. With standout performances by Redmayne and Vikander, The Danish Girl is an interesting and touching insight into transgender issues, yet lacks any humor or real joy for a new years outing.